The Emergence of Feudal Estates and Oligarchic Rule

Hungary, including Transylvania, underwent a major transformation in the course of the 13th century. Internal stresses had already weakened the social order of early feudalism; the Mongol invasion administered the final blow, bringing about the collapse of the old and the emergence of a new order. Royal and county estates were bestowed on powerful barons. Among those who had been tied to the royal castle system, the upper strata became the lesser nobility, while the lower strata (along with liberated slaves) became villeins who, though free to migrate, owed service to the landlords. The new social structure included barons, nobles, and villeins, as well as a distinct class of town-dwellers. The feudal upper class {1-452.} consisted of barons and prelates, the lower class of the lesser nobility and urban freemen. These strata benefited from privileges that were denied to the villeins subjected to the landlords. However, a significant number of agricultural workers enjoyed the status of free peasants. This was the case with the Jazygo-Cumanians ('Jászkunok') who lived on the Great Plain, the Saxon peasants in the Szepesség, and, in Transylvania — traditionally the home of free peasants — with the Saxons, Székelys, and, initially, the Romanians as well.

The second half of the 13th century saw rapid growth in the pace and scope of social change. The old county seats (Dés, Doboka, Kolozsvár, Torda, Gyulafehérvár, Küküllővár) had fallen to the Mongols, and although King Béla IV subsequently tried to repopulate his castle strongholds, the latter lost their military significance. As noted, their defensive function was taken over by the king's new network of mountain forts; the latter's castellans took on administrative duties, and one of them was generally designated count. Meanwhile, the former county seats found a new role as economic centres. The king resettled farmers, miners, and merchants (hospites) in Dés, Kolozsvár, Gyulafehérvár, and Torda, and to facilitate their economic activity, he gave them the right to elect magistrates, hold markets, trade free of duty, and pay lower taxes. New German immigrants revived the mining industry, some new mining towns — Offenbánya, Aranyosbánya, Torockó — were established. The new urban settlers, Hungarians and Germans, combined with earlier castle-folk who had won similar privileges to form Transylvania's Hungarian citizenry. Gyulafehérvár and Kolozsvár had been granted by the king to Transylvania's bishop in the 13th century. Kolozsvár became a royal free town in 1316, but Gyulafehérvár developed more slowly, for it remained in the bishop's domain. Doboka castle was granted to the Kökényes-Radnót family, and the fortress lost all significance, while the settlement remained a village and served as the manorial center of the Dobokai {1-453.} family estates. For a time, Küküllővár retained its military function, then, in the 15th century, it was also given away by the king. The lands belonging to Torda castle, and lying between the Aranyos and Maros rivers, were settled ca. 1270 by Székelys, who thus founded Aranyosszék. The villages that had been attached to royal castles passed into private ownership, and the royal estates were reduced to the lands around the new mountain fortresses, although this still added up to a huge area. The centre of the Transylvanian Basin, along with part of the mountain regions, became the property of aristocrats and other nobles.

Royal grants thus enlarged the scale of private property, and the landowners, facing a shortage of labour in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion, resorted to Romanian manpower, drawn either from the royal estates or recruited from abroad. As far as is known, the first derogation from the exclusive royal right to invite Romanian settlers was conceded by King Ladislas IV (1272–1290); his reign was bedeviled by constant civil strife, and he was probably hoping to win the support of a hostile Church when he allowed the canon (káptalan) of Gyulafehérvár to settle sixty Romanian families on the latter's estates at Enyed and Fülesd. Loránd, the voivode of Transylvania, may have been referring to these people when, in 1294, having invested a castle, he allowed the defenders free passage from Várad through the mountains to the Maros, and made reference to Romanians living on Church property (Olachi ecclesiae) beyond the Belényes region.

The last decades of the 13th century witnessed a steady decline in the power of the Crown at the expense of the aristocracy and the Church. The disintegration of the political system undermined central authority and control; one consequence was that more Romanians obtained property by unlawful means. King Andrew III (1290–1301) vainly attempted to stem the tide of lawlessness. In 1293, he decreed that all Romanians in Transylvania who had settled on private land be relocated on crown lands between the two {1-454.} Székes rivers in Fehér county (thus the number could not have been very high). Yet the king soon made new concessions. He upheld the privilege granted to the canon of Gyulafehérvár, as well as the disposal of the onetime crown property of Oláhtelek (Tohán); in 1292, he gave permission to the Illyei family, in Hunyad county, to settle Romanians on their estates along the Maros at Illye, Fenes, and Szád (Olacos possit aggregare ac aggregatos retinere).

If these concessions and the ongoing practice of unlawful settlement did not produce a mass migration of Romanians, it is mainly because until the end of the 13th century, the central authority managed to keep the Romanians under control in the border-guard districts. As indicated by the above-cited case, the incidence of Romanians on private estates was essentially limited to the Southern Carpathian foothills and the southern part of the mid-Transylvanian mountains. The numbers must have been small. Sources indicate that in districts of Eastern Hungary still partly inhabited by Romanians, there were, before 1300, around a thousand Hungarian and Saxon villages, but only six clearly Romanian villages, and five of these — Enyed, Fülesd, Illye, Fenes, and Szád — had obviously Hungarian-derived names. The name of the fifth, Tohán (Oláhtelek), reveals that it was implanted in a Hungarian environment. It is evident that these Romanian settlements, the first known to have been established on private land, arose within the boundaries of older Hungarian — and perhaps also Slav — villages.

Political events spurred the spread of private estates in the second half of the 13th century. In 1257, King Béla IV tried to satisfy the ambitions of his restless son, Stephen, by giving him a share of power, much as Béla's father had done with his own son. Stephen was put in charge of the eastern half of Hungary, including Transylvania, and given the title of 'junior king', though he also styled himself Prince of Transylvania. Stephen maintained his own royal court and pursued an independent foreign policy. The {1-455.} Mongols had left Transylvania in a lamentable state, and Stephen did much to reorganize the region and its defences; nobles who volunteered their support were rewarded with generous grants of land. However, it was not long before the jealousy between father and son plunged the country into a protracted civil war. At first, Béla's army forced Stephen to retrench at Feketehalom castle, in the Barcaság. When some of Béla's forces came over to his side, Stephen counterattacked. He routed the king's army, won a decisive victory at Pest in the spring of 1265, and compelled Béla to leave him in charge of Eastern Hungary. Although this state of affairs endured until Béla's death in 1270, the reconciliation of father and son was more apparent than real; both strove to recruit supporters among the aristocracy, necessarily by land-grants that added to the latter's already huge estates.

Stephen V had reigned for only two years when he died. The great landowning families exploited the fact that his son, Ladislas IV, was a minor. Relying on private armies recruited on their estates, and exploiting their authority as counts, they became for all practical purposes the lords of their provinces. In Transylvania, however, no voivode managed to win lasting authority; between 1274 and 1284, the post changed hands each year among members of various families. When Ladislas finally took over the reins of power, he tried to secure the support of a branch of the propertied Borsa clan, which had lived in Transylvania since the conquest and also owned lands in Bihar; his choice fell on Loránd Borsa, who held the post of voivode between 1284 and 1295. However, Ladislas lacked the talent to overcome the country's internal divisions and restore order. Under the influence of his Cumanian mother, he was drawn to the recently settled, and largely pagan Cumanians: he adopted their pagan ways, turned openly against the Church, and relished playing the role of Attila. With few exceptions, Hungarian aristocrats opposed this pagan orientation. When, in 1285, the Mongols burst into Transylvania, the Hungarian barons {1-456.} accused Ladislas of having invited the invaders; they seized the king and extracted a promise that he would change his ways. The Mongols and Cumanians wrought death and destruction over a wide area, including Transylvania; finally, as the main Mongol force headed homeward, laden with booty, it was soundly trounced by the Székelys from Aranyosszék. As for Ladislas, he soon broke his promise and returned to his Cumanian friends and their ways; by exploiting the disunity among Hungarian aristocrats, he managed to prevail time and time again. In the end, his unbridled behaviour provoked even the Cumanians, who assassinated him in 1290.

His successor, Andrew III, inherited a country that was devastated and woefully lacking in order and security. During his short reign, which was also troubled by pretenders to the crown who enjoyed the support of foreign powers, Andrew proved unable to pacify the country. Shortly after he became king, he toured Transylvania in an attempt to quell the spread of anarchy, but violence and extremism prevailed. One typical instance involved the Saxons, who had been at odds with Transylvania's bishop for over a century because of the tithe. When, in 1277, the geréb of Vizakna was executed on order of the bishop, the vengeful Saxons burst into Gyulafehérvár's cathedral during Sunday mass; they set fire to the church, carted off its treasures, ransacked the episcopal archives, and massacred many of the townsfolk. The perpetrators were excommunicated, but that did not stop the Saxons from continuing their campaign against the bishop. The decline of central authority facilitated the occurrence of many such outrages, and the king's visit brought no lasting peace. Soon afterwards, in 1294, the voivode Loránd Borsa — who, together with his brothers, ruled over much of Eastern Hungary — took up arms, first, against the Bishop of Várad, and then, against the royal forces dispatched to restrain him. A bitter campaign ended with his defeat, but his successor, László Kán, proved equally troublesome. The new voivode, who {1-457.} was also count of Szolnok, took advantage of the king's preoccupation with a rash of rebellions to treat Transylvania as his private domain: he confiscated royal revenues and seized control of the Saxon and Székely counties as well as of the mining towns. In 1307–1309, he would not allow the vacant bishopric to be filled until the Church agreed to his nominee, the Dominican friar Benedek. The voivode's entourage included a deputy voivode who came from the distinguished Ákos clan, a court magistrate (udvarbíró), and a county clerk (főjegyző) who was none other than the archdeacon of Küküllő; he filled numerous posts of castellan with his relatives and confiscated the property of those who refused to serve him.

This pattern was repeated in other parts of the country and by 1301, when Andrew III died, a dozen provincial lords ruled virtually autonomous territories. The country was on the brink of becoming a patchwork feudal state in which the king exercised only nominal authority over his vassals. The protracted struggles for succession also favoured the oligarchs. The Árpád dynasty had died out with Andrew III, and there ensued a vicious struggle for power among descendants on the female side of the family. The Pope championed Charles Robert, a scion of the French Anjou dynasty in Sicily, but initially this candidate failed to win the favour of Hungary's aristocrats. Instead, the majority of the latter opted for Bohemia's Wenceslas, and when he withdrew, offered the throne to Bavaria's Prince Otto. Transylvania's Saxons were the first to rally to Otto, and it was probably on their advice that he sought to win the support of that region's powerful voivode, László. The rapprochement was encouraged by László's wife, a German princess related to Otto, and she offered to marry her daughter to him. In the meantime, however, László had discovered the weakness of Otto's candidacy. Seeking foreign backing for his rule, László betrothed his daughter to Serbia's King Uroš II, and when Otto arrived to meet his future father-in-law, László had him arrested. In 1308, the {1-458.} Transylvanian voivode released Otto, and acknowledged Charles Robert as king, but he refused to surrender Hungary's royal crown.

The Hungarian public, on the other hand, would recognize the new ruler's legitimacy only if Charles Robert was crowned with St Stephen's crown. That crown's guardian, the voivode László, did not even attend the national diet convened to elected the king; ensconced in his mountains, he chose to wait and see. The Pope's legate, Cardinal Gentile, attempted to negotiate with László; the latter proved intractable, and in 1309 he was excommunicated by Gentile. This severe censure achieved its purpose: the following year, László handed over the coronation regalia, and he even promised to surrender the royal rights and possessions that he had usurped. Charles Robert visited Transylvania in 1310, but he spent ten years in bloody struggle against Hungary's power-hungry oligarchs, and during those ten years, László remained the master of Transylvania. He would not admit royal troops into the fortresses under his control, and when in 1315 Miklós Pok was named to succeed him as voivode, László simply refused to hand over the reins. Finally, in 1316, after László had passed away, the king's forces prevailed over his sons' armies at Déva, then defeated the sons' ally, the former palatine Kopasz Borsa, at the battle of Debrecen. The Crown thus reclaimed Transylvania, and in 1318, Dózsa Debreceni was named voivode. The consolidation of royal authority was not easy. Dózsa had to suppress a revolt by Majos, son of Majos in 1319; and even his successor — Tamás Szécsényi, of the Kacsics family, who became voivode in 1321 — had to contend with the lingering power of László Kán's sons.

The voivode Tamás applied a firm hand to squash rebelliousness in Transylvania. He wrung allegiance from the supporters of László Kán and other freebooting nobles, then proceeded to deal with the Saxons. Pursuing their endless quarrel with the bishop, the latter ravaged Gyulafehérvár once again, in 1308. When, after László's death, the new voivode retained authority over the Saxon {1-459.} county, Henning, the geréb of Péterfalva, led a rebellion against him; Cumanian troops had to be summoned from the Great Plain before the Saxons were finally brought to heel in 1324. Tamás Szécsényi made a show of obeisance to the king, but in Transylvania he was as autocratic as his predecessor László. The bishop of Transylvania would repeatedly complain about Tamás's forceful attempts to obtain Church property for himself and his supporters.